Trump’s foreign policy: statesmanship, or fools’ gold?

In his April 27 speech on foreign policy, Donald Trump managed to sound more sober, serious and “presidential” than he usually does.  But putting his remarks in context, we can see that he does not propose an approach that will be conducive to the well-being of the people of the United States and the world.

Trump’s strategy in this year’s election is based on stimulating, and taking advantage of, the mass appeal of populist slogans.  Although the international right has turned “populism” into a swear word in some contexts, e.g.  in right wing denunciations of the anti-austerity struggles in Europe and Latin America, Populism in the United States comes in both left-wing and right wing versions.  The latter often assimilates nationalist and even racist currents.  These nationalistic currents portray the United States as a uniquely virtuous country (“American exceptionalism”) that is put upon, exploited and taken advantage of by sly and malicious foreigners who do not appreciate all the good things that the United States has done for the world.   In this, right wing populism á la Trump resembles equivalent movements in France, Hungary and other places in Europe, which echo Trump’s poisonous rhetoric about immigrants. 

This is the essence of the Trump foreign policy speech – nationalistic populism applied to the foreign policy arena.   Mixed into this overall thrust are some truisms – the Iraq war was a mistake, we should work for better relations with China and Russia- that even some on the left would agree with. But all that really signifies is that it proves once again the adage that even a busted cuckoo clock like Trump gives the right time twice a day.

To put this in context, one must consider the person from whom these “wise and statesmanlike” comments are coming.  And one must listen for his coded dog whistles to the extreme right.  “America First” is not a slogan invented by Trump but by isolationists, including some on the extreme anti-Semitic right, on the eve of World War II, the war in which Trump, omitting the huge role played by the Soviet Union, says the United States saved the world.  The “America First” slogan was also associated with xenophobic right wing populist Pat Buchanan, and is the name of a right wing fringe party which shares Buchanan’s ideas.

The phrase, revived by Trump, about politics stopping at the water’s edge was coined in 1945 by Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-Michigan), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a former “America First” isolationist, and was part of the the rhetorical basis for the “bipartisan foreign policy” which made possible the worst excesses of the Cold War in which both Republican and Democratic parties were complicit in many cases (the Vietnam War, the Cuba blockade and other matters too numerous to mention).  Though Democrats and Republicans often clashed on domestic policy, this foreign policy “bipartisanship” inhibited the development of effective questioning of the direction of U.S. foreign affairs for many years. 

In his “statesmanlike” speech, Trump clearly shows a mindset that will, if converted into policy, increase rather than decrease international tensions.

*He wrongly blames foreign countries for the outsourcing of production and consequent loss of jobs in the United States. In fact, institutions and policies such as NAFTA, the World Trade Organization and the proposed Transpacific Partnership are the creations of Western governments and serve the interests of U.S. based transnational corporations. They hurt the interests of workers and other ordinary people in the poor countries like Mexico even more than workers in the United States.   Blaming entire foreign nations and scapegoating immigrants hides the real responsibility of the rich and powerful here and internationally.

*He wants to increase the U.S. military’s expenditures, which already are sky high-the annual U.S. military budget is more than half the federal budget for discretionary spending, and is equivalent to the joint military spending of the nine other countries with the largest military budgets, including Russia and China.

*He is obsessed with a supposed danger from Iran and would likely increase tensions with that country. With Trump as president, there would be a danger that the Iran treaty in which the Obama administration had a hand in negotiating would be abandoned by the United States.

*He is entirely uncritical of the actions of the current Israeli government toward the Palestinians, which has been criticized by the Obama administration, albeit cautiously.  Trump sees this criticism and a betrayal of a reliable ally.

*When he criticizes, correctly, the Iraq War and the U.S. intervention in Libya, he notes that these adventures have helped the growth of ISIS and other violent terroristic movements.  But the overall policy he advocates would be to continue U.S. support for despots like former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose regimes also contributed mightily to the current situation.

*In his speech, he implies that a Trump presidency would not be concerned with human rights.  In practice this would mean continued and increased financial and military aid to right wing repressive regimes such as the current one in Honduras.  The rhetoric of “human rights” has often been used by U.S. politicians in and out of power for negative purposes, while the worst violators of human rights receive massive subsidies and military support.  

Beyond the speech, this is the same Donald Trump who has stoked hatred for “Mexicans”, immigrants and Muslims, and who has promoted the killing of the families of terrorists and the sharply expanded use of torture as official U.S. policy if he is elected.

This is the same Donald Trump who has suggested that South Korea and Japan should have nuclear weapons-an action that would be strongly opposed within those two countries and would ratchet up tensions to unprecedented levels in East Asia.

So the “statesmanlike tone” of the April 27 speech should be seen for what it is: Fools’ gold, an effort to broaden his appeal by a selective use of populist and nationalist slogans.  Let the reader not be fooled.

Photo: Al Drago/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.